Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Venturing Out In Valencia


A football match abroad hadn’t really been on my radar, especially with the season almost over, but a phone call from my uncle changed all that. His mate had had to drop out of their holiday to Benidorm and he wanted to know if I fancied taking his pals place? He was departing for a week’s holiday in just under three weeks’ time, and despite the fact I had just got back from Las Vegas that very same day, I was definitely up for another break. A quick phone call to work the following morning to obtain more time off, and it was Benidorm here I come! Well once I’d paid £50 to change the name on the ticket that was. After everything was sorted, my first thought was is there any football on near Benidorm that week? 

Valencia did not spring to mind straight away when I was looking at the local fixtures taking place during my weeks stay, this being mostly due to the fact that I initially thought it would probably be too far a journey. With nothing else close by in the top two divisions I had to look to the lower leagues for my football fix. This proved fruitless. Benidorm no longer seems to have a team, and other than as yet undetermined play-off games, all the lower league final rounds of fixtures seemed to finish the weekend before I arrived. 

Getting desperate I rechecked the top two divisions and decided that I’d give Valencia versus Villarreal a go in, what is known as the the Derbi de la Comunitat. This despite the fact that it involved a €30 three hour round trip on the bus (no trains link the two metropolises).

My uncle, probably because he’s had to suffer all season watching Sunderland, had seen enough football for him this term, so left his Newcastle supporting nephew (he must have loved spending a whole week with me!!) to visit the beautiful city of Valencia on his own.

Anyone who has travelled from Benidorm to Valencia will have noticed the stunning scenery along the way, with beautiful mountains and hills along the route. It’s a similar scenario if you travel to Alicante in the other direction, leaving a really picturesque region of Spain (well if you ignore the drunk overweight British tourists that converge on the streets of Benidorm that is!). I arrived at the Estación de Autobuses in the coastal city of Valenica at 13.00. With kick-off not till 16:45 and my return bus not departing till 21:45, I still had a good few hours to explore the city and have a few pre and post-match pints.

I knew very little about the city and what limited research I had done told me that the city was noted for its cathedral so I thought that would a good place to visit before I headed towards the ground. The cathedral. It looked to be closed, but I was happy enough to take a few photos and have an have an ice cream from a nearby stall. This delicious strawberry cone followed up a disappointingly bland tuna steak I’d tucked into from a café on the way. Having admired the cathedral, and had a walk around the nearby streets and lanes which filled with restaurants, bars, and shops, I decided it was time to head towards the ground and find a few bars.

With Google maps and GPS being awkward on my phone, I opted for a taxi at a cost of 4.80€ and arrived outside the ground over two hours before kick-off with plenty of people milling around.

The Mestalla Stadium was opened in 1923 with an initial capacity of 13,000. The stadium suffered heavy damage when used as a concentration camp and junk yard after the outbreak of civil war in 1936, but restoration began after the war and in 1956 the capacity was increased to 30,000. The ground however was devastated by floods the follwing year, but was reopened again in 1959 with the addition of floodlights. There was a new expansion phase in preparation for of 1982 World Cup held in Spain, and after further expansion in 1997 the capacity was increased to almost 54,000, at which it still remains today. But with average attendances around the 33,000 mark this season, and a ticket for myself easy to obtain, I wasn't expecting a full house.

Attendances well below full capacity may be due to the fact that Valencia have fallen on hard times in recent years, this coming after a very successful period in the early to mid noughties in which they won two league titles, and were twice losing finalists in the Champions League. The club were deep into the bottom half of the table ahead of today's game, whilst their opponents and local rivals Villarreal needed a win to secure fifth place and a Europa League spot.

Until 1998 Villarreal had always been in the lower divisions and  had never came anywhere near the top flight, therefore Valencia never really considered them a rival. However in recent years Valencia have been struggling, meaning it's Villarreal who have been the more successful of the two sides, with Valencia apparently not liking the fact that these new upstarts have come along and taken their crown as number one club in the region.

A stroll around the outside of the stadium with a scarf purchased from one of the merchandise stalls for a cost of €15, the same price as my print at home match ticket, saw me end up sat outside a bar called Corona de Aragón across the road from the south west corner of the stadium. Some of the baguettes arriving on people’s tables looked extremely delicious, but I opted for a bottle of Amstel at a cost of €2. Looking around the nearby tables, the bright yellow of Villarreal seemed to outnumber those in Valencia attire, but there was a relaxed atmosphere with not a hint of trouble. If this was a derby, then Newcastle v Sunderland it certainly was not! 

Beer drunk, a further walk around the ground saw me come across another bar that I had missed earlier, this one offered take away cans of lager for 1€ and that seemed too good an offer to refuse. A further walk around saw me eventually enter the ground rather early, with the ID I’d been told to bring not needed.

My seat was in the ‘Gol Grand Alto’, at the southern end of the ground high up in gods in what I can only describe as the equivalent of level 7 at St. James’ Park. You can get a lift to the top but I opted for the many many steps that spiraled round to eventually arrive at the top of this stand. The concourse at the top tier of the stand is rather open plan, and you can look down at the masses on the streets below. This top tier is very steep, and due to the overhang of the of this tier and the one below, you feel right on top of the pitch, giving an excellent view despite being so high up. To the left there is the main stand, complete with a very old looking roof, whilst the three other stands, including mine are all uncovered. 

Valencia found themselves a goal down within 47 seconds when Roberto Soldado, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, saw his right footed shot hit the top left hand corner after quick break away from the visitors. Possession wise, Valencia controlled most of the first half, but despite having what seemed like an awful lot of corners, could not come close to scoring and found themselves a goal down at the break.

The players were out sharpish for the second half, and although it was Villarreal who started the brighter, Valencia actually equalised on 54 minutes when Nani, of Manchester United fame, headed into the top left corner after a cross from Rodrigo Moreno, formerly a loanee at Bolton Wanderers. Relief all round. Parity lasted all of four minutes however, when an assist from Jonathan dos Santos saw a Manu Trigueros left footed shot find the bottom left hand corner. The final nail in the coffin came on 88 minutes when Italian Nicola Sansone found the top left corner. This meant wild celebrations from the Villarreal supporters at full-time, whilst the home support whistled loudly and waived white hankies, their way of saying ‘what a load of rubbish’. The stadium quickly emptied as the 33,587 spectators who had turned up went off into the evening.

Post match started off with a beer and some sort of Spanish ham and mushroom casserole dish, complete with cheese on top, eaten outside another bar, this time heading away from ground, past Corona de Aragón where I’d sat had my pre match tipple. Food in my belly and my thirst quenched, I opted for a slow meander in the general direction of the bus station.

I’d only been walking for a few minutes when I was accosted by a cyclist who started talking to me rather quickly, and as my Spanish can’t really get past ‘Una cerveza, por favor’ it took me a while to work out what he wanted.  It dawned on me that he’d obviously seen my scarf and probably wanted to know the score. When I said ‘Valencia una, Villarreal tres’ he looked like he didn’t believe me, so I repeated those words and suddenly he had a look of absolute disgust on his face. He then went on an undecipherable rant before cycling off at speed. One of the stranger moments of my day.

The final highlight of my trip was a delightfully beautiful park sandwiched down below in between two sides of a busy main road. This tree lined affair included several football pitches a rugby pitch, and a wonderful floodlit athletics track.

To round off my trip I found a bar to catch on the telly some of Real Madrid’s final day win at Malaga which secured their 33rd La Liga title. This before a swift exit to the bus station and back to Bendiorm for a few pints with my uncle and a tale to tell of a fantastic day out that I will always remember with fondness.

As published in issue 26 of Football Weekends magazine

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